WTF Art History

Biggest Art Heists in History

Irina Diana Calu 12 October 2021 min Read

Movies on thefts and art heists are making huge box office hits for their great action and wit. However, even if real art heists have been sometimes as spectacular as those on the big screen, the repercussions for the art world and history are tragic. The stolen works of art are often renowned pieces by great masters. That makes them very difficult to be placed after the theft since everybody would recognize them. Not even the once potent black market is now interested. Sometimes the paintings are used for ransom, but this is rarely successful. This leads to the loss of masterpieces of great financial value, but even greater loss for the art world.

The Oldest Art Heist in History

Real Polish pirates stole the Last Judgement triptych by Hans Memling, envisioning the second coming of Christ, in 1473. Angelo Tani, head of the Bruges branch of Medici’s bank, commissioned the painting in 1465 for a church in Florence. When pirates attacked, the painting was on a ship heading to the city of art. Polish buccaneers attacked the ship transporting it, stole the three panels, and brought them to a cathedral in Gdańsk. The triptych is still in Poland, in the National Museum in Gdańsk.

art heists: Hans Memling, Last Judgement
Hans Memling, Last Judgement, c. late 1460s, National Museum in Gdańsk, Gdańsk, Poland.

The Most Stolen Artwork in History

Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece is considered among the ten most important paintings ever made. Maybe this is why it is the most frequently stolen artwork in history, having been burgled, all or in part, on six occasions and the object of 13 crimes over its almost 600 years of existence.

As soon as it was unveiled to the public, on May 6th, 1432, it became a site of pilgrimage for artists and travelers who voyaged to the Cathedral of Saint Bavo in the city of Ghent.

Hubert and Jan van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece or the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, completed 1432, St Bavo's Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium
Hubert and Jan van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece or the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, completed 1432, St. Bavo’s Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium.

The Great Iconoclasm

The Calvinist reform enforced the removal of religious images by invoking the Decalogue’s prohibition of idolatry and prohibited the manufacturing of images of God. In an episode known as the Great Iconoclasm, bands of Calvinists entered the Catholic churches of the Netherlands in 1566, shattered stained-glass windows, smashed statues, and destroyed paintings. During these events, a group of knights had the foresight to pull apart the Ghent altarpiece into its 12 component panels and hide them safely in the bell tower. The original framework, which was likely sculpted and highly ornate, has been lost since the Calvinist riots.

Napoleon’s Museum of Art

Its tumultuous history continued in 1794, when French Republican troops captured Ghent, removed the four central panels, and shipped them to the Louvre in Paris: Napoleon’s new museum of art. After his defeat at Waterloo in 1815, Louis XVIII was restored to the throne. As a thank you to Ghent, which had earlier sheltered him, he returned the stolen pieces.

In 1816 a rebel vicar sold the wing panels of the altarpiece for an art dealer. What happened next is not clear, but they eventually ended up at a museum in Berlin. Nevertheless, all the panels were returned to Ghent, as a condition of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919.

During the World Wars

Hitler was absolutely convinced that the occult and the supernatural were real. He considered the Ghent altarpiece to be a coded map to lost Christian relics that would provide supernatural powers to those who possessed them. He arranged for his troops to locate the altarpiece. Some sources state the tryptic was on route to the Vatican, others to Chateau de Pau in the French Pyrenees for safe-keeping, when it was pilfered. The Nazis hid the Ghent Altarpiece in a salt mine in Altaussee, Austria. It was saved from destruction by the Monuments Men. This was an organization established in 1943 to help protect cultural property in war areas during and after World War II.

 art heists The Ghent Altarpiece during recovery from the Altaussee salt mine at the end of World War II, Soource: National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain
The Ghent Altarpiece during recovery from the Altaussee salt mine at the end of World War II. National Archives and Records Administration (public domain).

Back Home in St. Bavo’s Cathedral

Right when the COVID-19 pandemic started to spread through Europe, in February 2020 Van Eyck. An Optical Revolution was taking place in MSK, in Ghent, Belgium. It was the largest Jan van Eyck exhibition ever. Central to the exhibition were the eight freshly restored exterior panels of The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, plus the interior panels with Adam and Eve.

After so many adventures, the Ghent Altarpiece is now safe in a glass case, back into St. Bavo’s Cathedral. Moreover, it will never ever leave the cathedral again.

The Most Stolen Artist in History

Maybe you are wondering who the most stolen artist is? Pablo Picasso leads the top of most stolen artists, followed by Nick Lawrence and Marc Chagall in the 3rd place. The latest data retrieved dates back to 2012 when Picasso was leading with 1147 stolen works.

Pablo Picasso, Le pigeon aux petits pois (Pigeon with Peas), 1911, Stolen in may 2010 Source: Wikimedia Commons Public Domain
Pablo Picasso, Le pigeon aux petits pois (Pigeon with Peas), 1911, stolen in May 2010, current location unknown. Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

Some have been recovered, some have not, some have been destroyed, but a huge majority are likely still out there, hidden away.

The most expensive of all the 1147 stolen Picassos is Le pigeon aux petits pois (Pigeon with peas), painted in 1911, stolen from the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris in May 2010, estimated at €23 million.

Crimes Against Art

The Nazis loot of 650,000 art objects from Europe is known as the greatest displacement of art in history. Many works were never recovered. The theft of art and other items which occurred as a result of the organized looting of European countries during the time of the Third Reich is called Nazi plunder (Raubkunst). This operation was carried out from when Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in 1933, until the end of World War II in 1945.

 art heists “Monuments Man” James Rorimer, with notepad, supervises U.S. soldiers as they carry paintings down the steps of the castle in Neuschwanstein, Germany, in May 1945, Source: The Washington Post
Monuments Man James Rorimer, with notepad, supervises US soldiers as they carry paintings down the steps of the castle in Neuschwanstein, Germany, in May 1945. The Washington Post.

In his youth, Adolf Hitler wanted to become a professional artist, but his dreams were ruined after he twice failed the entrance exam for the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. He favored classical portraits and landscapes, especially of Germanic origin. It is therefore comprehensible why he ferociously attacked modern art as degenerate, including Cubism, Futurism, and Dadaism.

Adolf Hitler, Mother Mary with the Holy Child Jesus Christ, 1913, Source: Public Domain
Adolf Hitler, Mother Mary with the Holy Child Jesus Christ, 1913. WikiArt.

In Hitler’s own words, degenerate art is the art that insults German feeling, destroys or confuses natural form, or simply reveals an absence of adequate manual and artistic skill. On July 19th, 1937 an exhibition was mounted in Munich, so people could see and understand the world of decay.

The Degenerate Art Exhibition (Die Ausstellung Entartete Kunst) included 650 confiscated paintings, sculptures, and prints by 112 artists, primarily German: Georg GroszErnst Ludwig KirchnerPaul KleeWilhelm LehmbruckFranz MarcEmil NoldeOtto Dix, and others. 1,000,000 people attended the exhibition in its first six weeks. The exhibition lasted until November 30th, 1937 and in the end 2,009,899 visitors attended it, with an average of 20,000 people per day.

Nazi minister Joseph Goebbels at the
Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels at the Entartete Kunst exhibition in Munich in 1938; On the left are two paintings by Emil Nolde (Christ and the Sinner, The Wise and the Foolish Virgins); On the right the sculpture Heiliger Georg by Gerhard Marcks. Photo by Bundesarchiv via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0 DE).

On March 20th, 1939, the Nazi set fire to 1,004 paintings and sculptures, and 3,825 watercolors, drawings, and prints in the courtyard of the Berlin Fire Department.

Approximately 20% of the art in Europe was looted by the Nazis, and there are over 100,000 items that still have not been returned to their rightful owners.

The Allies created special organizations, such as the Monuments Men, Fine Arts and Archives (MFAA) to help protect famous European monuments from destruction, and after the war, to travel to formerly Nazi-occupied territories to find Nazi art repositories. In 1944 and 1945 the Monuments Men found artworks in over 1,050 repositories in Germany and Austria at the end of World War II.

 art heists During the recovery of Pieter Bruegel the Elder's The Peasant Wedding, from the Altaussee salt mine, 1945, Source: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain
During the recovery of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Peasant Wedding, from the Altaussee salt mine, 1945. Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

Nowadays there are laws regulating the restitution of any Nazi-looted artwork back to their original owner, most of them Jews. The notoriety of being a Nazi-looted work of art can add value to a picture. Sotheby’s alone has sold over $800 million of the once looted art.

The Most Famous Art Heist

In 81 minutes, 13 masterpieces were stolen in 1990 from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has valued the haul at $500 million. The museum is offering a $10 million reward for information leading to the art’s recovery, the largest bounty ever offered by a private institution.

 art heists This Is a Robbery: The World’s Biggest Art Heist, Source: Netflix
This Is a Robbery: The World’s Biggest Art Heist, directed by Colin Barnicle, 2021. Courtesy of Netflix.

The documentary This Is a Robbery: The World’s Biggest Art Heist on Netflix provides thorough details on the investigation. In short, two men in police uniforms pushed the museum buzzer, stated they were responding to a disturbance, and requested to be let in. The guard on duty broke protocol and allowed them through the employee entrance. At the fake officers’ request, he stepped away from the watch desk. He and a second security guard were then handcuffed and tied up in the basement of the museum.

Rembrandt’s Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee and A Lady and Gentleman in Black were cut from their frames. Vermeer’s The Concert and Govert Flinck’s Landscape with an Obelisk were removed from their frames. A small self-portrait etching by Rembrandt was taken from the side of a chest. From another gallery on the same floor, five Degas drawings and Manet’s Chez Tortoni were taken.

The Most Famous Stolen Artwork

The most famous of them all, Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee was Rembrandt’s only painted seascape. It has an estimated value of around $100 million. Calming the storm is one of the miracles of Jesus in the Gospels, reported in Matthew 8:23–27, Mark 4:35–41, and Luke 8:22–25 (the Synoptic Gospels).

Rembrandt van Rijn, Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee, 1633, currently lost, stolen from Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in 1990. Source: Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
Rembrandt van Rijn, Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee, 1633, stolen from Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in 1990, present location unknown. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

35 That day when evening came, he said to his disciples, “Let us go over to the other side.” 36 Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat. There were also other boats with him. 37 A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly wamped. 38 Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”39 He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm.40 He said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”41 They were terrified and asked each other, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!”

Mark 4:35–41, The Bible.

The Most Valuable Stolen Artwork

The Concert by Johannes Vermeer is another masterpiece taken during the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist. It is currently the most valuable missing artwork in the world, with an estimated worth of $250 million at the last evaluation in 2015.

Isabella Stewart Gardner herself was extremely fond of this particular painting for its elegant depiction of domestic music-making, but also because it was her first major acquisition that she bought without the help of experts.

Johannes Vermeer, The Concert, c. 1665; stolen from Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in 1990. Source: Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
Johannes Vermeer, The Concert, c. 1665, stolen from Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in 1990, present location unknown. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

The work shows three musicians: a young woman sitting at a harpsichord, a man playing the lute, and a woman who is singing. A viola da gamba can be seen lying on the floor. Will a fourth character join them? The musicians’ clothing and surroundings identify them as members of the upper bourgeoisie. Vermeer rather deliberately crafts a sense of mystery: this study in social interaction is a comedy of manners open to our interpretation.

A Casa del Papel Style Operation

In 2000 armed thieves orchestrated a complex operation at the Nationalmuseum in Stockholm. First, they set off bombs in two cars at nearby hotels, as a distraction for the police. The men armed with a submachine gun and handguns threatened the guards and ran off with three works by Rembrandt and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. The robbers escaped by throwing nails on the road to obstruct the police cars and fled in a motorboat they had docked in the water canal in front of the museum.

Police stated that the artworks were valued in 2000 at $30 million.

 art heists National Museum, Stockholm, Sweden, 2007, Author: Abhijeet Vardhan, Source: Flickr
National Museum, Stockholm, Sweden, 2007. Photo by Abhijeet Vardhan via Flickr.

In January 2001, the police received a ransom demand for several million Swedish krona, but they refused to pay. The same month police arrested the mastermind of the operation, together with several accomplices. A few others were arrested in 2002, but unfortunately, at that time the paintings were not yet located. A few months later, in a completely unrelated drug raid, they recovered Renoir’s Conversation.

Auguste Renoir, Conversation, 1878, National Museum, Stockholm, Sweden, Photographer Bjoertvedt, Source: Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Conversation, 1878, National Museum, Stockholm, Sweden. Photo by
Bjoertvedt via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

In 2005 the FBI was investigating a Bulgarian drug trafficking syndicate. One of the interrogated men gave them the Young Parisian and told them that the Rembrandt was in Denmark. Later that month, authorities in Copenhagen set up a sting operation pretending to be a buyer of the Rembrandt to catch the sellers in the act. The sellers were trying to trade the $42 million painting for only $100,000! All the criminals involved have been arrested and all the paintings recovered.

An Alarm Signal to Enhance Security

In 2003, thieves broke into the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester, UK, and stole relatively minor paintings by Paul Gauguin, Pablo Picasso, and Vincent van Gogh, worth a collected £4 million.

Pablo Picasso, Poverty (Les Misérables), 1903, Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester, England. Spurce: Manchester's Finest
Pablo Picasso, Poverty (Les Misérables), 1903, Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester, UK. Manchester’s Finest.

On one of the wettest nights Manchester has known for months, the smugglers placed the canvases in a card tube, and hid them 200 meters across the museum’s park, in a toilet block. The tube was soaked but the paintings were only slightly damaged – the Van Gogh was torn in one corner but could be repaired; the other two pictures had small marks caused by exposure to the weather.

The damp card tube had the following note on it:

 art heists, The note read
The note read “the intention was not to steal. only to highlight the woeful security.” Art Crime Blog.

Apparently, the thieves only wanted to draw attention to the poor security of the museums. The people who executed the theft have still not been identified.

Most Recent Art Heists

The Two Laughing Boys with a Mug of Beer, which was made in 1626 by Frans Hals, has since been stolen a total of three times: once in 1988, once in 2011, and the last time in August of 2020. Last year, the canvas was stolen from the Museum Hofje van Mevrouw van Aerden in Leerdam, Netherlands, during the morning hours. BBC News stated the value of the Frans Halls painting at around €15 million.

Frans Hals, The Two Laughing Boys with a Mug of Beer, 1626, Hofje van Mevrouw van Aerden Museum, Leerdam, The Nederlands, Stolen in 2020
Frans Hals, The Two Laughing Boys with a Mug of Beer, 1626, Hofje van Mevrouw van Aerden Museum, Leerdam, Nederlands, stolen in 2020, present location unknown. Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

Just a few months before, Spring Garden by Vincent van Gogh was stolen from the Singer Laren museum in North Holland on March 30th, 2020, Van Gogh’s birthday. At the time of the theft, the museum was closed to the public due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Police said the thieves broke through the glass doors and left before law enforcement responded to the alarm.

Vincent van Gogh, The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen, 1884, Singer Laren Museum, Laren, The Nederlands, Stolen in 2020
Vincent van Gogh, The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen, 1884, Singer Laren Museum, Laren, Nederlands, stolen in 2020, present location unknown. Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

In early April 2021, a person was arrested in the town of Baarn, as a suspect in the theft of Two Laughing Boys with a Mug of Beer by Frans Hals and also of the theft of The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen by Vincent Van Gogh. Neither painting has been recovered at this time.

The search for stolen art works continues. Also, all the museums in the world are taking enhanced security measures to protect their permanent collections. Even greater precaution is taken for the transport of the masterpieces when they travel to temporary exhibitions around the world. Hopefully, this will discourage thieves and allow us to enjoy the marvelous world of art.